In the world of agile project management, there is a concept that is often applied to project documentation, administration, and methodology: “barely sufficient.” This phrase relates to the agile philosophy that elements that don’t directly provide business value to customers need to be skinned to the bone — that is, minimized to the point that they are on the verge of, but not over the edge of, chaos.

Although this column is not about agile project management, I strongly recommend that you apply the concept of bare sufficiency to every project you undertake in this precarious economy. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • What does the customer really need?
  • What are the core value-generating elements of the project at hand?
  • Which components can be stripped or minimized without significantly impacting the utility of the project at hand?

No more costly bells and whistles

Even without the backdrop of an economic contraction, the role of the project manager is often to help clients stay focused on the value of the expected end product. As you reach out to different stakeholders and constituencies, you’ll often find that the project scope is expanding, and everyone has their pet feature or function that absolutely must be included.

In the economic environment of 2006, when all we saw ahead was more growth and profit, it might have been feasible to include a few extra bells and whistles (even if they weren’t necessary to the product’s core functionality), simply to build the required consensus and enthusiasm needed to help a project cross the finish line. In our new, constrained economy, where profits are scarce, credit is even scarcer, and every dollar spent on a project is a dollar subtracted from operating cash, the impulse to add sexy new features must be resisted. The disciplined project manager can play an important role in guiding clients to prudent investments in new functionality, while defying the constant impulse to add that one last ingredient.

As you know, this is easier said than done. Sometimes that one last feature really is the missing ingredient that will add tremendous business value and competitive advantage. Experienced project managers know that it’s folly to stand in the way of a truly breakthrough idea. On the flip side, they also know that many features that get tagged onto an in-flight project are not that great of a leap forward; oftentimes, these features are an attempt to: put a personal stamp on a project, resist change, or make the new product work exactly like the old one. Even a breakthrough idea may not be right for implementation in this particular project, due to budget, resource, or schedule constraints.

Save money from start to finish

Techniques that you can use to guide clients to prudent project investments run the gamut from project initiation all the way through to project execution. Here are three possible approaches:

  • Identify projects with short-term results: In the project selection and initiation stage, you need to help clients select projects that can demonstrate results in the short term. As the excesses of the boom years are unwound and new business models emerge, many executives are leery of projects that will take years to pay off and that may not be compatible with the business’ final direction after the chips fall. Helping clients uncover and identify projects that can show measurable returns quickly can solidify your relationship as a strategic advisor and ensure that you’re still engaged when the economy turns around.
  • Maximize the value of their portfolio: An often-cited statistic tells us that many companies never get the expected value from their IT purchases. While new spending is constricted, you can advise clients to squeeze all the value from their current portfolio rather than beginning new initiatives. This can mean a change in paradigm for many project managers; instead of designing and implementing new technologies, you may find yourself organizing training programs or adding long-postponed features to an existing product to prolong its life. While the work may not be as exciting as designing and implementing a new system, it helps clients conserve precious cash, and it allows you to enhance your skills in the human elements of system adoption.
  • Slice and dice new projects: When clients visualize their new system, software, or product, they often envision an entirely new way of doing business, all delivered at once and capped off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Remind clients that there are many ways to slice and dice a new project. Also, help them envision an incremental, iterative approach to delivering new functionality, in which the capabilities of the new system are delivered in small, digestible pieces and are learned, accepted, and integrated into the business’ processes before the next wave of features is rolled out.
    This approach is at the heart of the agile approach to project management, and it has special merit in these economic conditions. Organizations can’t borrow or reallocate the funds or resources to do the blockbuster projects they crave, but the competitive race doesn’t stop, and companies can’t just halt its investments in innovation. Project managers who can guide clients to accept the constraints, change their vision, and deliver small steps toward the larger goal, can become strategic partners with their clients in making the best of less.

Many of these recommendations may run counter to your instincts. You probably never thought that you would advise clients to do less, to lower their sights, and to reduce their project expenditures. While the new era of reduced project size, reduced expenditures, and reduced billable hours may hit us in the pocketbook, it is, nonetheless, good practice to help clients deal with a difficult financial situation while still delivering critical business functionality. And, when the economy booms again, you’ll be viewed as the trusted advisor who disregarded your own self-interests and helped clients create the business value that will propel them forward in the next turn of the cycle.

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